With KCBS’s ‘The Desk,’ Assignment Editors Tell The Story
Less than 25 minutes after an SUV plowed into more than two dozen sheriff’s recruits on a jog through Whittier, a city in Los Angeles County, images of the horrific scene were beamed from the KCBS chopper to the station’s airwaves. Details of the unfortunate event were scant but trickling in, with viewers learning what happened about as quickly as the KCBS newsroom was.
Delivering the breaking news was not an anchor or a reporter in the field with a camera crew on that November morning. It was a KCBS assignment desk editor named Mark Liu.
“This is a very chaotic scene,” Liu informed viewers. “I have been listening to this on the radio and my colleagues Esteban and Annette on the assignment desk have been calling Los Angeles sheriffs to get more information as this is unfolding.”
He was able to report that the car that struck the recruits and its driver remained on the scene, so it was not a case of hit-and-run. Liu also said first responders were shutting down lanes of nearby highways to transport the injured to local hospitals.
He tried to figure out what headquarters the cadets were based out of, checking digital maps, which were displayed on the air, and he later surmised that the SUV came to a stop only after crashing into a light pole.
For around 10 total minutes Liu shared the rest of the information he had about the incident with KCBS News morning anchors before they interviewed a retired member of the fire department, who provided insight into what the scene’s first responders appeared to be doing.
The segment was one example of a new KCBS broadcast initiative, The Desk. During morning and evening news shows on KCBS and its sister station KCAL, both of which are CBS-owned, assignment desk editors Liu and Mike Rogers discuss the stories members of the newsroom are working on — breaking news and, sometimes, enterprise stories as well. When producers choose not to interrupt the broadcast, one of the assignment editors may deliver breaking stories on the KCBS website streaming channel.
The Desk is the brainchild of Mike Dello Stritto, VP and news director at KCBS and KCAL. Like so many others in the industry, Dello Stritto has bounced around the country during his career, working in newsrooms in Florida, Tennessee, Nevada and elsewhere. After taking his current position in February 2022, Dello Stritto committed himself to finding a way to further leverage what he believes is the finest assignment desk in America.
“I sent people to this assignment desk to learn best practices and to take those best practices back to their job,” Dello Stritto says. “I sent myself here to this assignment desk when I was managing editor at [CBS’s] KPIX in San Francisco back in 2014.”
He says The Desk is the “next generation” of the breaking news desk, which he recalls became in vogue about a decade ago, likely after some news consultants told stations it would add immediacy to their broadcasts.
“Still, it was filtered; [the news] had to go through a middle manager, through a process,” Dello Stritto says about the old breaking news desk feature. “Did it make things faster? Probably a few things, but really some of it was just playing a little television smoke-and-mirrors.”
With The Desk, any middlemen have been cut out of news delivery. Anchors throw to Liu or Rogers at the assignment desk, which was built into the station’s new studio, launched Jan. 5, with a camera at the ready. (In the old digs, several cameras were placed around the assignment desk for varying shot selections.) Once on the air, the assignment editors simply discuss what they know about a new story, while reporters travel to a scene and prepare their packages.
“In other worlds, the assignment editor would be telling the reporter what they’ve learned,” Dello Stritto says. “In our world, we’re telling the viewer right away instead of telling the reporter.”
At the very least, The Desk is a low-tech means of producing new content with a virtual net-zero impact on workflow. Assignment editors were already doing this job; now they’re just doing it on camera. More crucially, in this period of consumer distrust in news organizations, Dello Stritto says The Desk is an opportunity to provide viewers with critical transparency. Authenticity shines through; Liu and Rogers don’t dress like anchors, nor were they trained in news delivery — which was precisely the point.
“I don’t want them to go through a process where we’re trying to take the real person out of them and make them ‘a broadcaster,’” Dello Stritto says, inflecting his voice at the end to sound more formal. And while KCBS has several other assignment editors on staff, Dello Stritto nominated Liu and Rogers for the on-air duty based in large part on their innate ability to verbally project well, which they otherwise display when dishing out assignments to reporters and producers.
“There’s nothing more exciting than being on an assignment desk in the most unique news market in the world,” Rogers says. “Finding and gathering information — especially breaking news — has been my passion for the nearly 10 years I’ve been in broadcast journalism. When I was presented with the opportunity to do my job in a new and unique way, while maximizing the viewer experience, I immediately agreed.”
Rogers sees The Desk as an opportunity for KCBS and KCAL to “bolster” the “trust and reliability” they’ve built with consumers for years. His assignment desk peer, Liu, says the segment is a “grand experiment” that’s “pulling back the curtain on how we gather the news and putting it on the air faster and with greater depth than we have before.”
“It’s equal parts exhilarating and terrifying because there’s no template as to how this should look or feel,” Liu says. “We have evolved it every day since we started, and it’s already become this dynamic, awesome thing.”
Dello Stritto has scoured the news industry for similar programming and says, so far, he hasn’t seen anything else quite like The Desk anywhere else. He conjures the phrase “imitation is the finest form of flattery,” but observes that other stations might not have the right personnel to develop their own version of The Desk: extremely well-trained, passionate assignment editors with natural on-air reporter chops.
Though The Desk is just a few months old, Dello Stritto says the audience is taking to it. They find it “refreshing” and are developing a connection to Liu and Rogers, he says.
“The attraction is that they are regular guys doing their job and then telling people what’s happening,” he says. “People are expressing that in different ways, but there are strong indications that viewers are latching on to not only the concept, but to these guys who are delivering it. My hunch is it’s because of that transparency and authenticity, that it doesn’t look and feel like a television news anchor who’s sitting there, yet they’re delivering in a compelling, clear way.”
Editor’s Note: This is the latest of TVNewsCheck’s “Newsroom Innovators” profiles, a series showcasing people and news organizations evolving the shape and substance of video reporting. These profiles examine the inception of their innovations, the tools they employ and how they’re reconciling experimental approaches to news storytelling within daily workflows. You can find the others here.